Sunday, January 9, 2011

Writing Useless Scenes: How To Make Each Scene Count

Raise your dirty little paws if you're guilty of writing a scene that was amusing to you, but failed to impress a further-advanced writer/reader. 

Right. We've all done it. 

It's probably one of the biggest walls standing between you and your potential masterpiece and it happens primarily when the writer feels as if something is missing and, subsequently, makes an attempt at spicing things up. Often, in the second act, you'll feel the pace begin to slow. You've followed the rules and made it through act one; characters are introduced, set-up is established, hook is on point, and your inciting incident miraculously made it into play at page ten. So begins your protagonist's journey into the unknown where he or she will face obstacles that challenge him emotionally and irritate him to no end. 

And, CUT! 

The screeching halt can be heard for miles! Where does he go from here? What's relevant? What's shocking? What would look great on screen and what would convince Johnny Depp to take the role?

You're now lost. If you've found yourself wondering "OMG, guys! Where does my protagonist go from here?!" then, clearly, you've done insufficient character and story arc development. You should never have to stop and wonder where to go next. Pre-planning should ensure that, rather than feeling short of material, events, and scenes, you should be feeling more like you're overwhelmed because you have so many events to cram in--this, by the way, is a great thing because it means you have options and an adequate imagination.

Let's look at a popular produced film for our examples. The 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a structurally amazing film (high quality screenwriting, there, folks!). This is a particular tricky film to pick apart because every single second of the film was perfectly balanced, every single event comes full circle, and every line is heavily valuable in the grand scheme of the story. If you've seen the film, you'll remember the scene where Jessica Rabbit comes to Eddie V.'s (Bob Hoskins) office. She exhumes sexuality and intensity and nearly gives poor Ed a stroke. Obviously, this scene is greatly valuable in keeping the plot in motion and it doesn't take a filmmaker to understand this. What's particularly impressive about this scene is that it serves so many purposes, perhaps even beyond the spectrum of what can be noticed by even the most seasoned film buff. Again, this film is wound together with such tight precision that it almost seems like a human couldn't have created it. Anyway, beside the point, back to the scene.

The general movie-going public is going to easily recognize the major function of this scene; Jessica is asking Eddie for help. This is the first time that we see a vulnerable side of J. Rab, as I like to call her... ok, no I don't. Jessica's character is opened to us, the viewer and we finally get to see beyond her glamorous facade. This scene breaks down the wall that, up until this point, we could feel between her, her world, and Eddie; us. (Note: You do realize that your viewers become your protagonist when they watch a film, right? Another blog for another day.) This breaking down of the wall, so to speak, gives Jessica Rabbit a three-dimensional personality and she finally becomes real for us. Guess what that is? Character development. Also, Eddie's character becomes a little more defined as we see a war raged between his morals and his testosterone when in the company of the most desirable women to (n)ever exist.. She's a toon, it doesn't count. This is also character development. In some small way, this appeals to us, the audience, because we are reassured that he's not a stereotypical male who allows his hormones to get the best of him; he has tact, he has a moral compass. As Delores enters, we see development for her character, as well, because Delores' feelings for Eddie are made clear when she regards Jessica with undisguised contempt.

Now you're thinking, "Thank you, Captain Obvious!" right? Let's keep going.

There's a lot of exposition buried in this scene (forbid, you know not of what I speak when I use the term exposition-- yet another forthcoming blog?). We learn Jessica's motive for the patty-cake scandal. Do we believe her? Depends but, either way, this serves as a tension-building tactic. Tension! This scene is full of it. Until this point, we may have been swayed to believe that Jessica is a part of some conspiracy against her own husband, the rabbit. After hearing her side of the story, we now have something to mull over. Is she lying? This keeps us watching.

Tension thickens when Delores enters and sees Ed and Jess in a compromising situation. We're inspired to panic because this could potentially ruin the relationship between Ed and Delores that Ed has worked to rebuild.

Exposition is revealed again when Jessica exits stage left and Delores tells Eddie about Cloverleaf. On the way out of the apartment, Eddie and Delores walk right by a car where Jessica is subtly spying. More tension plus some foreshadowing. Because of that, we must wonder if Jessica came to Eddie's office with an ulterior motive-- why is she still lurking just outside?

I could go on and on but hopefully you're starting to see a pattern. This scene on screen for roughly one or two minutes gives away a ton of vital story element. It is trimmed and polished, condensed and emphasized and without this pivotal plot point the story would suffer.

Getting back to the topic of writing each scene in a way that builds and moves your plot rather than slows and distracts it, the main goal to keep in mind is that you want to employ storytelling techniques at every turn. Don't just use them when you feel like it, use them perpetually. You hav to! It's not a choice! The good news is the only trick to executing all of this is to understand and know how to utilize set-ups, payoffs (or plants, as some might call it), character and story arc progression-- to keep the plot moving-- and tension.

Here's what you want to avoid:
-Don't write a scene with the intentions of keeping it forever.
-Don't assume it's perfect or even good after one draft.
-Don't write banter-- banter usually ends up with on-the-nose dialogue which butchers the art of exposition release.
-Don't write a funny bit just because you and your friends laugh at it and you've all agreed that, no matter what, it's gotta go in the script-- it actually may not be amusing, at all.
-Don't give your characters busy work to fill space in between chunks of dialogue.

Fix your problems:
-No scene, no script, no-nothin' is EVER perfect on the first pass. Ever. Shh! No, it's not.
-Dialogue should either, A.)Release information, B.) Develop your character, C)Foreshadow an event, D.) Build tension. Mostly, it needs to concurrently perform ALL of these tasks but start out with trying to maintain one or two at a time. Lots of practice will get you where you'll eventually need to be.
-Comedy is its own creature and it takes a particular type of (highly experienced) screenwriter to pull it off. Never commit to a comedy simply founded by your love for hilarious films. Write a clever story and, if you're the right kinda writer, the comedy will come natural.
-If your character is performing some sort of task while holding a conversation, that task better make sense. You can't take Jinkies the car shop guy who spends thirty pages of the script, dirty, and under the hood of a car into a knitting circle to show that he has a hobby outside of mechanicin'... Well, actually.. Anyway, point is, if you find yourself thinking, "hm.. what can he be doing while he argues with Marge?" then you'll more than likely end up assigning him a busy work task. Give them meaningful and life-like actions, environments! Foreshadow, create a set up and pay off with their in-between actions! Don't force them to do something that will have no relevance anywhere else in the story.

Plan Your Characters Before You Write One Scene Of Your Script!
Do not start a script with the characters tucked away in your mind. Do not even begin with merely a list of names and the intentions, good ones of course, of making up more as you need them. Do not, do not, do NOT do this. I'm serious. Story planning should start with writing at least five pages for each character. If you think I'm joking, think about this; a screenplay--or any story, for that matter!-- is about how a group of personalities handle a given situation. This is MY theory, don't steal it. Based on my theory, what do you think the most important element in a story is? Characters! If you think that writing a meek and mild and emotionless entity into existence on paper is enough, then you're wrong. And, if you think that writing a bare minimum of five pages of pre-script development for each character is too much work then you need to pick another profession because writing isn't for you.

My particular method involves creating a character or two, perhaps more or less, and writing out their purpose, their personality and a list of things they do, cause, prevent, etc. I free-write about them for as long as I can. Then, I write for another personality which can either complement or conflict with that personality. After I've created a room full of afflicted weirdos, I begin to imagine what they could learn from each other. I wonder what they could take away from one another. I challenge myself to become each and every one of those people. If I'm free falling while I free write and I still haven't decided who's story needs to be told, then I take a look at my notes about each of these personalities and decide where I, personally, would like to meet them. What could any of them do to shock me? Scare me? Make me laugh? This process can take forever if you're reading it like a recipe but the truth is that once you've mastered this you won't even need to think about it. You'll innately DO IT.